Sunday, 19 May 2013

Multi aspect sensor

An important feature of the Panasonic GH1 and GH2 was the multi aspect, oversized sensor. They had sensors larger than that of the other Four Thirds sensor cameras. This allowed taking pictures in the aspect ratios 4:3, 3:2 and 16:9 with the same diagonal sensor length, and, hence, using the full image circle. This is in contrast with other Micro Four Thirds cameras, which apply sensor cropping at 3:2 and 16:9 aspect ratios.

When the Panasonic GH3 was launched late 2012, it was a big disappointment that it did not offer the multi aspect sensor feature of the two predecessors. But what does it mean?

The illustration below shows the two sensor sizes. The green rectangle is the standard Four Thirds sensor size, while the black corners outline the GH1 and GH2 sensor size. Since the GH3 has the standard sensor size, it crops to achieve 16:9 video recording (orange box). The GH1 and GH2, on the other hand could use the red rectangle for video recording, using the image circle more efficiently and also achieving a wider field of view given the same lens.

In video

In the illustration above, the GH3 video crop of the sensor (orange box) is 7.4% smaller than that of the GH1 and GH2 (red box), when measured by the diagonal. This means that when using one of the kit zoom lenses at the widest setting, 14mm, the diagonal field of view of the GH3 corresponds to 15mm in video mode. This was calculated as 14×(1+7.4%). So, as compared with the predecessor, the kit lenses will give you less wide angle when video recording.

What you can do, then, is to use a different lens. The Lumix X 12-35mm f/2.8 lens starts at 12mm, and hence, gives you a better wide angle during video. On the other hand, it has a more limited zoom range, stopping at 35mm, well before the typical portrait lens focal length of 42mm. It is an excellent lens, though, probably the best I have ever used.

Another option is the Olympus 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 power zoom lens. While this lens generally gets mixed reviews, probably because of the limited maximum aperture, I think it is a very interesting lens. It is the only zoom lens to cover both the very wide and portrait lens focal length. On top of this, it also adds a macro mode and power zooming, as well as coming in a weather sealed constant length package. On the downside, though, it does not feature optical image stabilization, so using it for video recording on a Panasonic lens is going to be tough. Without a tripod or a good support, your videos risk being shaky.

It's good to keep in mind that the lack of a multi aspect sensor in the GH3 is nothing extraordinary. In fact, out of all video enabled consumer system cameras, the GH1 and GH2 were the only to feature the oversized multi aspect sensors. All other do not have this feature. On the other hand, most other video enabled system cameras have an APS-C sized 3:2 aspect sensor. When cropping such a sensor to 16:9 for video, this wastes a relatively smaller part of the sensor than when cropping a 4:3 sensor. Hence, the oversized sensor doesn't make that much sense with APS-C sensor. The illustration below shows this:

The Four Thirds sensor wastes 25% of the sensor area when cropping to video mode, and 7.4% of the image circle (diagonally). The APS-C, on the other hand, wastes only 16% of the sensor size, and 4.5% of the image circle. So the oversized sensor feature does not make as much sense with the more common APS-C sensor format.

Here is a side by side video showing the GH2 and GH3 in photo and video mode, both using the Lumix G 14mm f/2.5 pancake lens. It shows that when changing to video mode, the GH3 loses some field of view due to cropping the from the Four Thirds sized sensor:

In photography

If you like to take photos in the 4:3 aspect ratio, then there is no difference whatsoever between the GH2 and the GH3. The resolution is exactly the same.

However, the GH1 and GH2 had the option of using the 3:2 and 16:9 aspect ratios for photos as well, while still retaining the same diagonal field of view. If you intend to use the images in this format, then you would use the lens image circle more efficiently with these cameras, and the GH2 will give you better resolution to boot. Here is a comparison table:

Photo resolutionGH2GH3
4:34608x3456 (16MP)4608x3456 (16MP)
3:24752x3168 (15MP)4608x3072 (14MP)
16:94976x2800 (14MP)4608x2592 (11MP)

These differences are not that important, surely, but there is in fact a significant difference.

On the other hand, with a camera like the GH3, it is best to stick with the 4:3 format when photographing, and crop the image later, if needed. And that saves time and hassle while photographing, which is not the worst thing you could do. With the GH2, I would often change the aspect ratio when photographing something wide, giving me slightly better resolution. With the GH3, I just skip this part, which is easier anyway.


Losing the multi aspect sensor feature with the GH3 was a setback. However, the consequences are not that severe. You lose the very widest field of view in video mode. If you prefer using longer focal lengths, this might actually be an advantage.

Producing two sensor sizes was probably too costly for Panasonic. So I can understand their desire to standardize the sensor size from an economic point of view. The Panasonic G5 and Panasonic G6 cameras are said to have sensors based on that from the Panasonic GH2. However, they still do not have the multi aspect sensor feature.

In fact, Panasonic has done the same also in the compact camera market. Their LX3 and LX5 premium compact cameras featured a 1/1.63'' (8.07 x 5.56 mm) multi aspect sensor, larger than the typical 1/1.7'' sensor mostly found in these cameras. The newest Panasonic LX7 has a standard 1/1.7'' (7.44 x 5.58 mm) sensor, from Sony, incidentally. It still achieves the multi aspect feature by having a slightly smaller image circle. This also allows for the very impressive aperture rating of this camera, f/1.4-2.3.

I think losing the multi aspect rate sensor opens up the need for more wide zoom lenses. Only two lenses start at 12mm so far, the Lumix X 12-35mm f/2.8 and the Olympus 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3. The first of these is very good, but also very expensive, and a bit short. The second does not have OIS, and is hence not so useful for video on Panasonic cameras. With this in mind, I think that Panasonic should make a lens specified at something like 12-50mm f/2.8-4.5 with power zoom and OIS. That would be great for video use with the GH3.


  1. It's worth mentioning that if they put an APS-C sized sensor in an m4/3 camera, it would be big enough to handle all aspect ratios including squares!

    I'm hoping Panasonic does this at some point. It would be the ultimate multi-aspect sensor camera.

    1. Yes, that is an interesting comment. Using a stock APS-C sensor may actually be cheaper, since there is a larger volume of these being produced.

  2. The only problem there is that APS-C sensors would cause huge vignetting with MFT lenses.

    1. Yes, but what we discuss above is to use an APS-C sensor in a Micro Four Thirds camera to achieve different aspect ratios within the Four Thirds image circle. I.e., not using the full APS-C sensor surface, but only the parts that fits with the format's image circle.